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Two studies in Nova Scotia say fracking poses low risk to groundwater

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HALIFAX - Hydraulic fracturing would not pose a serious threat to Nova Scotia's groundwater supply if the contentious extraction process was closely monitored and properly regulated, say two draft reports released Tuesday by an expert panel.

The panel, led by Cape Breton University president David Wheeler, also concluded the province's reasonably stable geology would make contamination of drinking water wells less likely than in other areas.

As well, the panel says that ensuring drilling sites are properly installed would be relatively easy, adding that the industry in Alberta could serve as a good role model.

"It is a relatively straightforward task to establish good monitoring and regulatory practices to ensure that the site is geologically understood, that wells are properly installed," one report says.

"Although rigorous statistics remain elusive, it seems that the number of problems encountered in Alberta and British Columbia, both relatively mature regulatory environments, is not large. ... The mature regulatory practices of jurisdictions such as Alberta could serve as a guide to the establishment of a system in Nova Scotia."

But a spokeswoman for the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre says the two studies, posted online Tuesday for public debate, are flawed.

"The panel stated that they wanted this to be a science-based process, but I see pages upon pages with no references, no peer-reviewed reports at all," said geoscience co-ordinator Jennifer West.

Wheeler, the chairman of the panel, could not be reached for comment.

West also challenged the panel's suggestion that Nova Scotia's existing drinking water regulations are good enough to ensure drilling and fracking is done safely.

"The government is already struggling to enforce the regulations that they have with people that they have," she said.

West said the Environment Department failed to properly enforce its regulations several years ago when Triangle Petroleum filled two, large holding ponds with the wastewater from fracked test wells in the Kennetcook area. The ponds were supposed to contain only fresh water and eventually leaked.

It has taken the province almost six years to come up with a plan to dispose of the wastewater.

"There wasn't enough enforcement of those approvals," West said, adding that the department would be overwhelmed if the industry was granted approval to drill thousands of wells in the area.

"To assume that the Department of the Environment would have the capacity to do this without a major influx of money and personnel ... I don't think it's possible."

The reports say the province has time to get prepared.

"Any significant development of Nova Scotia's unconventional oil and gas would not take place for several years, perhaps much longer," one report says. "This gives Nova Scotia time to establish appropriate monitoring and regulatory systems if the possibility of such development emerges."

West said the province doesn't have a good scientific grasp of its groundwater resources, which means it is not in a position to offer them much protection.

As for the assertion that Nova Scotia has reasonably stable geology, West said the opposite is true, particularly in the area where resource companies seem keen to explore.

"The province's geology is filled with faults and fractures and has a great deal of minor seismic activity," she said. "The Windsor-Kennetcook basin is highly fractured and is very complex."

In 2012, the Nova Scotia government placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, saying it needed more time to study the rapidly growing industry.

The panel goes on to suggest there's little chance that the fracking process itself could affect drinking water aquifers because the oil and gas deposits sought are deep underground.

However, the panel says further research is needed to determine how fracking wastewater can be safely disposed of.

About 40 per cent of Nova Scotia's population gets its drinking water from sources other than municipal water systems, and the vast majority of these people rely on deep, groundwater wells.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves blasting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a well bore to fracture the surrounding rock and release the trapped hydrocarbons, usually natural gas, coalbed methane or crude oil.

The process has been used in one form or another since the late 1940s, but environmentalists say they are more concerned about a relatively new process known has high-volume fracking in shale deposits, which was first used in Canada in 2005.

West said Nova Scotia shouldn't look to Alberta for direction.

"It is not a mature industry in Alberta or anywhere," she said.

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